PROBIOTICS: A WORTHWHILE SUPPLEMENT FOR SPORT
When we speak about a person’s microbiome, we are using an umbrella term for the TRILLIONS (yes, trillions) of microorganisms that live in and on our body. One of the most interesting things that I have learnt recently is that exercise induces changes in gut microbiota and as a result, gut microbiota compositions vary between active and sedentary individuals. Given the well-known impact of gut health on our overall wellness, this provides yet another reason to get active1.
It’s important to note that while not all microbiota found in your microbiome are good (they may be beneficial, harmful or potentially harmful), probiotics are the good guys. They are microorganisms (live cultures) introduced into the body for their beneficial effects on health, including gut and immune benefits. Probiotics usually ferment fibre (prebiotics) as food, do not produce toxins and have beneficial effects on the body. They provide an army of ‘good’ bacteria in our digestive system.
While we know athletes develop different microbiomes to sedentary people, there is a large body of evidence to support the benefit of probiotic supplementation in optimising health, performance, and recovery of athletes. Afterall, everything we consume goes through the gut for processing and it’s also where the majority of our immune cells are housed.
HOW PROBIOTICS IMPROVE IMMUNITY
You may not know this, but your gut is home to approximately 70% of the body’s immune cells2, thus gut health plays a crucial role in immunity!
Ever noticed that some very fit people get sick so much more often than the “average joe”? Well, this is because excessive training puts strain on the body, resulting in the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and a suppressed immune system7.
Probiotics can help support the athlete’s immune system by strengthening the body’s natural defences through an increase in the activity of immune cells and proteins housed within the gut8,9. This results in decreased infections as well as a reduction in duration and severity of various infections, including those pesky upper respiratory infections, that interfere with your training 2,9,10,11.
HOW PROBIOTICS IMPROVE EXERCISE RECOVERY
It makes sense that a healthy gut is able to digest and absorb nutrients along its surface better. Physical exercise results in an increase in free radical production, meaning that levels of circulating free radicals are increased after prolonged exercise. An aim in recovery nutrition is to return the body to its pre-exercise state. Probiotics can assist this process by improving the absorption of various nutrients, including antioxidants- which have the ability to counteract the effects of free radicals and return the body to its pre-exercise state6.
Probiotics also improve absorption of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which play an important role in repairing muscles2,4,5. If proteins are better absorbed, you would need to consume less to experience the same benefits and because protein is not cheap, this offers a financial benefit5. Of particular interest, is the fact that studies are showing probiotics to improve leucine absorption by 23% 6. Leucine is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) well known for its beneficial effects in protein synthesis.
HOW PROBIOTICS PREVENT DIGESTIVE COMPLAINTS
Gut health and probiotics are synonymous, so as you may imagine, probiotics can prevent those very uncomfortable and urgent “toilet breaks” during exercise.
This condition is referred to as leaky gut syndrome and is often experienced by endurance athletes, particularly runners. Not only can it cause a lot of discomfort for an athlete, but it may also mean a significant increase in your race time.
Leaky gut occurs because cells lining the intestinal walls pull apart during exercise, causing a leak into the bloodstream, which can result in toxemia2. Specific probiotic strains can put into place various mechanisms which help to significantly reduce the chance of leakage occurring by improving the integrity of the gut-barrier2, thereby reducing the likelihood of gut distress during exercise11,12.
While live bacteria may not be the first sports supplement that pops to mind when you are making your shopping list, probiotics may be one of the more beneficial ones. Gut health plays an integral role in overall health and for athletes it can mean improved immunity, better absorption of nutrients and fewer digestive complaints. Speak to a healthcare professional or do a little scientific research to learn about which strains will be of the most benefit to you.
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Author: Angela Leach RD (SA)